Shiver on the Surface

Ella Miller admired the 47.8-pound striper her dad, Chris Miller, speared while free-diving on Sept. 17 off his boat, Sea Spearit. Julie Miller

    Friday morning started out only beautiful. No signs of fish as Capt. Ken Rafferty’s boat left the Montauk Harbor inlet heading west toward Gardiner’s Island. He’d called around, spoken to fellow guides already offshore. “No albies” (false albacore), “no bass” (striped bass).

    The previous few days had been slow going, so it was not with high expectations that we set out — Rafferty, Dr. Mark Melrose, his client, and this gazetteer — although in the face of Montauk’s September splendor, fishy expectations took a back seat to the here and now.

    Rafferty spun yarns, as he will, more valuably in the absence of fish. His theories on their untrustworthy behavior flowed like the water rushing past our hull as we passed Gardiner’s Island’s Eastern Plains Point, passed the magnificent sand bluffs on the north side, where sits the island’s castle-like tower from whose camouflaged parapet America’s defenders kept eyes peeled for German U-boats during the war.

    Rafferty drove to the sand-covered  rock reef. The tide ebbs and flows over the reef. Striped bass and bluefish are known to hunker down in the deep on either side in wait for prey caught in the tidal flow. When cast in just the right spot, a lure that apes the prey can fool the predators, but not this time.

    So, we headed back east, jokes and stories flowing until Melrose spotted a few birds, excited, that certain shiver on the surface, and, as we moved closer, dorsal fins like small sails circling. Fish!

    From only beautiful September splendor to a lily just shy of gilded, the day was complete. Huge bluefish, about an acre of them, milled about on the surface of the bay’s emerald green water. We cast popping plugs from light spinning rods. The lures are designed to be retrieved quickly across the surface, to make a ruckus. “Make them splash,” Rafferty commanded. “They’re not feeding. They’re hitting them because they’re mad. You’re invading their territory.”

    Montauk is awash now in small, trailered boats that take fly-fishermen and anglers armed with light spinning rods out to battle the feisty false albacore that visit our area this time of year. Albies are small tuna and fight like their bigger cousins when caught. However, there is nothing quite like a 15-pound bluefish that is, as Rafferty put it, “mad.”

    These were big fish that made the spinning reels scream. “I love that sound,” Rafferty crowed, as his anglers caught big blue after big blue until arm-weary. And, as the lures hit the surface to disturb the bluefishes’ wa, to bait their anger, it occurred that we were not unlike the crowds we thought had left with summer, the folks we feel don’t belong here this time of year. We were encroaching on the fishes’ here, the blues’ Gardiner’s Bay territory, and their now, the September splendor that defines their proprietary instincts.

    Apparently we were not the only flies in their emerald green ointment. At one point a few dozen big bluefish took to the air at once, signaling the presence of a bigger predator. In any case, we let most of them go, keeping four to eat. People wince when you express a liking for big bluefish. It’s all in the preparation. One way is to trim the dark meat off the fillets before broiling, or steam the fillet and make fish cakes with onion, a bit of soy sauce, pepper, breadcrumbs, and egg to hold it together.

    Speaking of unorthodox fish tastes, Harvey Bennett of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett has recently set his cap for dogfish. “ ‘Try this,’ ” he said a friend told him, handing over a plastic bag of unidentified fish flesh. “I lightly grilled it, and finished it in a pan with light breadcrumbs and lemon juice. I’m going out on a limb here, but I liked it better than fluke. I’m almost tempted to go dogfishing. Now, I’m on a mission to try a big sea robin,” said the predatory shop owner.

    Bennett reported that although fluke usually migrated out of Gardiner’s Bay this time of year, one customer said he caught 22-inch fluke from the beach at Gerard Point in Springs using squid for bait. He also reported striped bass at Georgica Beach on the ocean side and the first “coot” (sea scoters) of the season. He spotted the sea ducks in Gardiner’s Bay last week.

    “Coots are like fish, they feed on the swing of the tide. The best hunting is on falling water. You set up and wait for the water to drop. They start moving into the shallows to feed.” The hunting season for sea ducks begins on Oct. 17 and runs through Jan. 31. Bow hunting for deer in these parts begins on Tuesday and runs through Jan. 31.

Alexander Londono caught this 15.4-pound, doormat-size fluke, aboard the Lazy Bones party boat on Sept. 13. Wow! Kathy Vegessi